FRANCESCO TOTTI IS CLINT EASTWOOD IN DISGUISE
It's a mild October evening in Manchester. City's polished team of international superstars are 1-0 up at home to Roma. So far, so good. The script is intact.
Having kicked off with a routine penalty from Agüero, the game is shaping up to be one of those sterile, one-sided Etihad freestyle sessions. Another of City's trademark Globetrotters tribute acts was just warming up.
That was until Radja Nainggolan carved open City's defence with a swipe of his right boot. Franceso Totti, Il Capitano, Er Bimbo de Oro, Il Gladiatore, First Of His Name, was in on goal. One on one with the keeper, Totti had a dink in his holster. He caressed the ball over Hart with a delicate stroke worthy of Michelangelo's brush.
But that's not a reference that suits Totti. He's not a man of the Renaissance. He's not the kind of guy who would care about keeping his felt tip within the lines in his colouring book. He's Roman, not Milanese.
His thick Romanesco accent was often the butt of the jokes made by the Milan-based media. His brusque personality sets him apart from more 'cultured' players like Chiellini with their Economics degrees. He's a coarse gunslinger who represents an Italy that many refined Milanesi love to scoff at.
Francesco Totti is, in short, basically Clint Eastwood.
It might have been an evening fixture, but Totti took his one-on-one with Joe Hart as if it was High Noon. Just like when Clint Eastwood, shrouded in poncho, took out Ramón Rojo in the final duel at the end of A Fistful of Dollars, Totti's right Tiempo was his revolver. If you listen carefully, you can just about hear the Hollywood gunshot twang before he gallops off towards the carnage of the Roma away end.
Totti's very own Spaghetti Western left the Etihad shellshocked. For all its beauty, the scene might as well have been directed by Sergio Leone. The veteran gunslinger, as always, had struck his target. It was the old football world versus new, raw passion versus petrodollars. Justice had been served - and for one split second, football wasn't broken.
Rewind thirty years, and a baby Francesco was still learning his trade on the streets of Porta Metronia in the suburbs of Roma. The street in particular was Via Vetulonia, a post-war housing neighbourhood to the south of Ancient Rome's pomerium. It was here, in a working-class, rigidly Catholic apartment, that Il Capitano was raised. His mother pushed him through local clubs Fortitudo and SMIT Trastevere until he eventually ended up at Lodigiani. That's where Roma saw a Boy With No Name nonchalantly doing kick-ups on the sidelines at the Stadio Borghesenia.
By 1997, Totti was establishing himself in the starting eleven at the Olimpico. Carlos Bianchi, Roma's then-manager, insisted to Roma's president Franco Sensi that the club had to choose between him or Totti. The Argentine was in favour of sending Totti out on loan up north to Sampdoria. Sensi chose Totti. Bianchi was gone later that same season. The alternative was unthinkable. Totti, like Romulus, was still suckling from the she-wolf of Roma. It was Jupiter's prophecy that he would become king.
It was the season after that Totti would stoke the flames of his eternal duel with Gianluigi Buffon. Through on goal against Parma, Er Pupone - the boy who lived off a diet of nutella, chips and pizza - goaded Buffon off his line before suddenly pulling the trigger. The cucchaio (literally, ‘the spoon’) had been pulled off. Buffon was lost at sea.
He'd been beaten by an irreverent outlaw who had no respect for the conventions of the game. Out ran Totti towards the stands, with the saloon doors swinging behind him. He was living the dream. Just a rootin' tootin' cowboy from Porta Metronia, scoring goals and kissing girls. If you look closely enough, you can just about see that something is scratched into the sole of his right boot. Yeah, that's right, it says ANDY. Sheriff Totti was at it again.
He did the same at Euro 2000. It was Italy vs Holland, Totti vs Edwin Van der Sar and his big hands. It was the turn of the century, man. Toys R Us was booming and soda streams were still cool. Chicken Run had just come out and Mum still had a breadmaker. Oh, and Francesco Totti was scoring panenkas in penalty shoot-outs at the European Championships.
Di Biagio stepped up first. Top bins. Then de Boer missed. Pessotto went right and Van der Sar was visibly shaking. Jaap Stam hit it over the bar and it all came down to our Francesco. Van der Sar had dived low and wide for the first two penalties, and Totti knew it. Just like when Clint Eastwood told the undertaker to get three coffins ready before his showdown with the Baxters in A Fistful of Dollars, Totti told his teammates 'Mo je faccio er cucchiaio', 'I am going to chip him'. He walked up from the centre-circle and stared down Van der Sar with his Roman nose. A solitary waah, waah, waah echoed around the Amsterdam Arena before Totti trotted up to the penalty spot and did the dirty. He'd pulled off the panenka and Italy were through.
This wasn't the Totti I grew up watching, though. The Totti I know and love is slightly wearier one that turned up at the 2006 World cup. Then at the ripe age of 30, he had arrived in Germany not fully recovered from a serious ankle injury - but he was in in the form of his life. Roma coach Luciano Spalletti was soon to turn him into a false nine at club level, encouraging him to drop deep behind the midfield to ruse his markers. It was from that deeper role that he'd win the European golden boot, netting 26 goals. He exercised the same blend of technique and vision in the blue of the Azzurri at Germany '06, and came home with the most assists at the tournament to show for it.
In the controversial world of 2000s Italian Calcio, Francesco Totti - just like Dutch Van Der Linde and his posse of outlaws in Red Dead Redemption 2 - was a relic of a forgotten, pre-corrupted world. While those virtual cowboys clung to the dream of an old west, Totti fought for a purist ideal of football that we'll probably never see again. He famously turned down a potentially lucrative move to Real Madrid and he showed absolute fidelity to his maternal club.
The Totti that stole the show on that night at the Etihad was a cowboy in Nike Tiempos. Slightly weary looking and sun-kissed, Totti had gone full Clint Eastwood - and on that night he performed one of the final acts of his very own Spaghetti Western. Francesco Totti was one of football's best - and one of the meanest gunslingers that the game ever did saw.